A sharp eye in the autopsy: profile of Keith Simpson.
Article Type: Biography
Subject: Forensic pathologists (Biography)
Author: Ramsland, Katherine
Pub Date: 03/22/2007
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Spring, 2007 Source Volume: 16 Source Issue: 1
Persons: Biographee: Simpson, Cedric Keith
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 161282540
Full Text: When British Pathologist Dr. Cedric Keith Simpson went to the scene of a burned house in Bedford one Saturday night to help search for a body, he came across the charred remains of what he thought might be a forearm. With great care, he laid it into a cardboard box, and at the end of the night he took it to his laboratory for analysis. Investigators from Scotland Yard, along with the local fire chief, gathered around as he prepared to cut through the charred crust to get to the tissue and bone. As everyone watched, he shoved in the scalpel. They all leaned closer. The crust cracked open and gave way. But something was wrong. Everyone laughed as Simpson found himself cutting open an overbaked loaf of French bread.

"The laugh was certainly on me," he mused in his most famous book, 40 Fears of Murder, "and to this day, when I visit Bedford on a crime, I am likely to be asked if I would care for a slice of French bread with my tea!" (Simpson, 13).

Involved in forensic work from 1934 into the 1980s, Simpson believed that death investigators must keep a sense of humor. While there was nothing funny about such grim scenes, rare moments of merriment were cherished and shared, because they got everyone involved through difficult times.

Simpson was one of a handful of British pathologists during the mid-twentieth century to become renowned for his careful work, and several cases became particularly newsworthy. If not for his persistence and skill in the 1949 incident involving Mrs. Olive Durand-Deacon for example, the con artist and serial killer John George Haigh may have gotten away with several murders. Digging into the 3-inch-deep human sludge in the yard where Haigh admitted to having dissolved the missing woman in acid, Simpson kept a sharp eye for a specific item. He knew from medical records that Durand-Deacon suffered from gallstones; he also knew that gallstones, covered in fat and quite hard, were resistant to acid, so he'd set out specifically to look for them. Reaching into the sludge with a hand gloved against the corrosive acid, he found what he was seeking. He also removed a partial foot, bone fragments and a set of dentures.

Other evidence that was traceable to Durand-Deacon turned up as well, and her appointment to meet with Haigh the day she disappeared strengthened the case. Further investigation revealed that Haigh had swindled, killed, and similarly dissolved four other people. Despite an insanity defense based on his claim that he needed to drink his victims' blood, he was convicted, and executed. Simpson's work ensured that justice was done.

Born on July 20, 1907, Simpson grew up watching his father, a doctor, attend to his practice in Brighton, Sussex. Simpson then entered medicine himself and became a top student, and then a lecturer. Eventually he lectured around the world.

Oddly, he found himself unable to bear illness and injury, so he went into pathology because the dead feel no pain. Soon he became fascinated with forensic applications, finding the rush of an ongoing case to be quite stimulating, even under grueling cross-examination in court. At one point, he gained the reputation of having done more autopsies than anyone in the world.

Among Simpson's other books are Forensic Medicine, Modern Trends in Forensic Science, several textbooks on courtroom principles and etiquette, and even a collection of true crime vignettes, The Fatal Chance: 12 Cases From The Notebook Of A Crime Pathologist, written under the pen name, Guy Bailey. Forty Years of Murder is his retrospective autobiography.

In this book, he describes how he got his start in 1934 when Scotland Yard called him to the scene of a murder in a hotel near a railroad station. The request made him nervous, but he wanted to prove himself with the Yard, and he was aware that most such cases went to a famous pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury. Simpson arrived at once and was fortunate to work with an experienced detective who spotted his potential and led him through the protocol. When Simpson placed his bag on the floor rather than a table or bed, he impressed the detective with his awareness of the potential for corrupting a crime scene. Then he took out a notebook, which also impressed the detective, who then offered subtle hints about what to do next. Simpson was grateful. "Years later," he wrote, "he said I had impressed him by my calm and unhurried step-by-step examination" (Simpson, 24).

In 1937, Simpson was appointed the medico-legal advisor to the Surrey Constabulary, and by the early 1940s he was involved in the examination of wartime crimes. One day, a reclusive elderly woman was found dead in her locked, barricaded bedroom. The key lay on the floor inside. She held a glass of brandy tightly in her hand, as if she'd simply fallen, yet from bruises on her face and head, she had clearly been assaulted; more suspicious, her jewelry cases were open and empty. Two suspects, drunken seaman found on the property, had her jewelry in their pockets. It seemed possible that they had entered to batter and rob her, and she had then barricaded herself inside her room. Yet, Simpson decided, the extent of her injuries would have hindered her from setting up the barricade. So how had it happened?

The incident proved a challenge to reconstruct, but eventually the investigators surmised that one of the men had knocked the victim down in her room and tried unsuccessfully to strangle her. He had second thoughts and possibly used the brandy to try to revive her. Failing that, he had staged the scene with the barricade to make it appear less lethal. To see if this was possible, Simpson helped with an experiment that proved that the barricade could have been rigged from the other side of the locked door, and the key slid under it. With this evidence and the victim's condition, it was not difficult to get the pair of killers to confess that they had indeed killed the woman. However, one died before trial, so the other threw all the blame on his deceased partner. With no evidence to the contrary, there was reasonable doubt and he was acquitted.

Besides his work in general pathology, Simpson made forensic history with some bite mark cases. In fact, he made his public debut in court in 1942 with the case of a beheaded female murder victim discovered in skeletal condition under a concrete slab, her legs severed at the knees. On a list of missing persons, Rachel Dobkin seemed the most likely candidate, and her medical records were located. Simpson utilized the dental plate of the intact upper mouth to track down the dentist who had done the work. His records matched Dobkin's, so she was definitively identified. Simpson went on to determine that she had been strangled, so her estranged husband, Harry Dobkin, became the suspect. He was soon arrested and eventually convicted as her killer.

Four years later, Simpson also matched the distinctive teeth and weapon impressions found on battered victims to a sadistic serial killer. On June 20, 1946, Margery Gardner was found suffocated to death in a London hotel, and she'd been brutally whipped with a metal-tipped implement. She had also been sexually violated and bitten on the breasts.

Simpson examined the body, noting, "If ever I saw a murderer's signature on his handiwork, it was the imprint on Margery Gardner's body of the riding whip with the diamond weave pattern" (Simpson, 104). There were 17 distinct lash marks on her stomach, back, and breasts. He then told detectives, "Find that whip and you've found your man." Because the hotel room had been signed out to Neville Heath, and his fingerprints were found there, the police had a good idea who to look for.

In the meantime, the con artist and killer had moved on, going to a seaside town to seek another victim. He seduced Doreen Marshall with a false persona, luring her to a lonely spot where he bit and stabbed her. But the police caught up with him and searched his effects. They found a braided whip with a pattern that specifically matched the bruises on Gardner's body. Found guilty, Heath, only 29, was sentenced to be executed.

During his day, Simpson became one of three prominent pathologists, along with Dr. Donald Teare and Dr. Francis Camps. For a brief period, until Camps became too competitive to collaborate, they were called the "Three Musketeers." Seeing the need to share their findings with others in their field, they founded the Association of Forensic Medicine. Camps eventually went his own way, but the organization flourished.

All three pathologists were called into a sensational case in 1953, which involved a serial murderer named John Reginald Halliday Christie. He had gassed and killed six women, raping five, and he stashed the corpses in walls or under the floorboards of his small flat. After he sublet the flat, the renter discovered the decomposing remains. Christie was arrested, and concerns arose that in 1949 he may have also murdered the wife and child of his upstairs neighbor, Timothy Evans. Christie had actually testified against Evans, who had been convicted and executed. Now Christie was stating that he was indeed the killer and had kept the pubic hair of his victims in a tobacco tin; among them was the hair from Beryl Evans. Yet Christie was a proven liar and seemed to enjoy his sudden notoriety.

In the interest of justice, an exhumation was ordered, and the three experts had to compare the hair on the corpse with the different tufts of hair found in Christie's tin. Camps was present for the prosecution, Simpson was present for the defense, and Teare was present because he had done Beryl's original autopsy. After examination, three of the four tufts were clearly ruled out, but one was of the right consistency and color to have been from Beryl. Yet her pubic hair appeared to be intact, aside from the few plucked at her original autopsy. It was a tense situation.

Then, as all of England debated the merits of the death penalty, anticipating the finding that an innocent man had been wrongly hanged, Simpson and Teare determined that the pubic hair from the tin had been trimmed on the other end some six months before Christie had clipped it, and Beryl had not trimmed hers. "The conclusion was inescapable," Simpson wrote. "The hairs in the tobacco tin could not have been taken from Beryl's body at the time of her death" (Simpson, 2000). He also found no evidence of carbon monoxide gassing--Christie's typical M.O. Thus, Simpson affirmed Teare's original report, along with Evans's status as a fairly convicted killer. Upon hearing the results, Christie backpedaled and his lies caught up with him, yet the veracity of his confession remains controversial to this day. Evans was given a posthumous pardon for the murder of his child (the court decided that Christie had done it) but remained accused of the murder of Beryl. It was an odd sense of closure, to be sure, but Simpson was confident of his findings: Christie had not collected Beryl's pubic hair as he'd claimed.

Not described in Simpson's memoir, but nevertheless involving his expertise, was the enigmatic hanging of Italian financier Roberto Calvi, 62, from Blackfriars Bridge in London on June 18, 1982. In his pockets were five pieces of brick, totaling about 14 pounds, along with approximately $15,000 in various forms of cash. Just days before, the Vatican-based bank, Banco Ambrosiano, of which Calvi had been president, had collapsed into debt. Because Calvi was linked with both the Cosa Nostra and the Vatican and because he was a member of the illegal Masonic Lodge, whose clandestine rules demanded death for betrayers, it seemed likely that he had committed suicide. His family protested.

Coroner David Paul invited a jury of six men and three women to consider whether Calvi's death was suicide or homicide. The jury learned about Calvi's alleged financial indiscretions and frauds, and then they listened to Simpson dispute the possibility that Calvi had been strangled, poisoned, or drowned before being suspended from the bridge. "My conclusions," he testified, "were that the death was due, without any question in my view, to asphyxia by hanging: that evidence of drowning was entirely lacking and that there was no evidence to suggest that the hanging was other than a self-suspension in the absence of marks of violence." He found nothing to show that Calvi had been bound in any manner, adding that if he had been strangled, there should have been another ligature mark, or the marks of fingers or fingernails. In addition, he found no injection mark or evidence of poison. Thus, murder seemed unlikely. "I am quite satisfied," Simpson concluded. "That possibility can be altogether excluded."

Sir David Napley, the attorney for Calvi's widow, asked Simpson whether it was possible that Calvi had been subdued by pinning his arms to his sides and placing a rag with chloroform to his mouth.

"I would expect the pinning to leave at least fingerprints," Simpson responded, because the victim would have struggled to some extent. He would not have passed out immediately.

Calvi's brother admitted that Calvi had already attempted suicide in another manner the year before, by cutting his wrist and swallowing tranquillizers.

After listening to 12 hours of evidence, the majority verdict of the inquest jury was that Calvi had killed himself.

Simpson had passed away by the time the case was revived and re-examined, this time with a different outcome. Years after the incident, an informant indicated that the Mafia had killed Calvi to silence him about their money-laundering as well as to punish him for losing their money. They had staged it with the bricks in the pockets to implicate the Masons. In 1998 Calvi's remains were exhumed to apply state-of-the-art methods of forensic science. The panel of forensic experts failed to find the injuries to Calvi's neck normally associated with death by hanging. Their conclusion was that Calvi had likely been strung up from underneath the bridge, which he could not do himself. Thus, he had been murdered. No one on this panel seemed to consider, as Simpson had, the absence of marks of a struggle or strangulation. However, they did examine other factors besides those that Simpson had noted, running experiments and concluding that it was impossible for Calvi to have hanged himself.

Interpretations among even the most experienced experts may differ, and the weight of one who may be mistaken can make all the difference to the outcome of a case. Simpson knew and accepted this, stating that pathology was nevertheless an exciting and fascinating career. He ended his memoir by quoting his father to the effect that nothing that is worth having is easy to get, and he believed this was especially applicable to the field of medicine. While there had been some trying times, he admitted, at least his patients had never complained. Even after 4 decades, be retained his sense of humor and hoped never to retire. He died in 1985 from a brain tumor, still otherwise vibrant at the age of 78.


Lane, B. (2004). The encyclopedia of forensic science. London: Magpie Books.

Simpson, K. (1978). Forty years of murder: An autobiography. New York: Dorset Press.

Simpson, K., As Guy Bailey. (1969). The fatal chance: 12 cases from the notebook of a crime pathologist. London: Peter Davies.

Thorwald, J. (1964). The century of the detective. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Wilson, C., & Wilson, D. (2003). Written in blood: A History of forensic detection. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.

Katherine Ramsland, PhD, CMI-V, has published 27 books including The Human Predator: A historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation. Dr. Ramsland is an assistant professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She is a Certified Medical Investigator (CMI-V) and has been a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners since 1999.
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